In the winter of 2008, shortly after the election of Barack Obama, my fiancee and I stopped into a local gun shop in Austin to buy ammunition for target practice, a hobby we enjoyed once or twice a month. Though we hadn’t asked, the clerk behind the counter told us that all the AR- and AK-style rifles were back-ordered. We could get on the waitlist, he offered, but the delay might be a couple of months — "if it’s still even legal to buy one then."
Eight years later, gun rights in America appear not only to have survived the Obama administration but to have thrived. Gun sales broke records almost every year of the past eight. As president, Obama signed legislation allowing guns onto Amtrak trains and into national parks, where they were previously prohibited, and his executive orders after the Sandy Hook massacre had no perceptible effect on most gun owners. Then we elected Donald Trump — a long-shot candidate who earned an endorsement from the National Rifle Association before he had even consolidated the support of his own political party. In April, Trump became the first sitting U.S. president since Ronald Reagan to address the NRA’s annual meeting. He told the cheering crowd that he was their "true friend and champion in the White House" and proclaimed that "the eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms" was over.
Perhaps the NRA shouldn’t have cheered. For years, the gun lobby has built its narrative around the idea that powerful forces in government are conspiring to ban and confiscate privately owned guns. That premise drove gun owners to sporting-goods stores as well as to the polls. Trump’s election, coinciding with conservative majorities in both houses of Congress and on the Supreme Court, has tanked gun sales and undermined the NRA’s most effective messaging. And with several Republican congressmen targeted this past week in a shooting in suburban Washington, the familiar political rhetoric about guns now seems dissonant.
When the NRA sells T-shirts depicting a rifle-wielding eagle above the slogan "Because you can’t fist fight tyranny," the implication is that you can fight tyranny (however you perceive it) with guns. It should be no surprise that someone would shoot democratically elected representatives when we’ve been told for decades that that’s the patriotic redress to political grievances. How will the NRA’s anti-government message resonate in the absence of a gun-grabbing bogeyman, and when its own A-rated politicians are targeted by gun violence? And who will represent gun owners’ actual interests while the NRA chases an antagonistic strategy that now seems entirely played out?
The idea that the NRA speaks with one voice for America’s 100 million gun owners has never really been credible. The organization claims to have 5 million members, a figure that can’t be independently verified and that doesn’t jibe with its magazine circulation. That tally also includes people like me: intermittent NRA members who joined as a prerequisite for something else. (Local gun clubs, certain insurance policies and even some employers require NRA membership or subsidize it as a benefit.) In any case, the political agenda of the organization doesn’t necessarily reflect the will of rank-and-file members. Of the 76 directors who lead the NRA, annual-dues-paying members elect only one. A small committee nominates candidates to fill the other 75 positions, for which only lifetime members may cast votes.
Still, there’s no denying the NRA’s huge political influence over the past few decades. Its Political Victory Fund scores candidates at every level of government, and an endorsement can be extremely valuable — in the 2016 election cycle, the NRA dumped millions of dollars into key races. By flexing its political muscle, the NRA has blocked funding for federal gun violence research, stalled presidential appointments and killed every significant piece of gun-control legislation introduced in Congress since the Federal assault weapons ban of 1994.
Having won battles against universal background checks and a federal assault weapons ban, the group has moved on to champion less-popular causes. Here in Texas, affiliates of the NRA have voiced support for the right to carry guns in college classrooms, courthouses, mental hospitals and zoos, and the right to carry a gun with no license or training whatsoever.
But who really wants this stuff? In August 2016, a young man identified himself to the New York Times as the only remaining member of Students for Campus Carry at the University of Texas at Austin (where about 50,000 undergraduates are enrolled). I’ve observed half a dozen open-carry demonstrations in the vicinity of the Texas State Capitol — the clusters of men with semiautomatic rifles slung across their chests are conspicuous but not numerous. A 2015 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that only 32 percent of Texans wanted looser gun laws; a 2016 poll in Utah found that only 24 percent of Utahns supported legalizing permitless carrying. These are policies in search of a constituency.
Legislators in deep-red Texas,Louisiana and South Carolina were still considering permitless-carry legislation this spring, after similar bills failed in New Mexico, Virginia, Utah and South Dakota. The bills were widely unpopular and were vocally opposed by law enforcement, but had the support of NRA-affiliated state organizations. Gun violence prevention advocates in Texas and Louisiana told me that, behind closed doors, Republican legislators encouraged them to keep up the fight, in the hopes that public pressure would ease these bills to an early death in committee. That’s exactly what happened. (Supporters of permitless carry in Texas have hopes that the legislation could get another chance during this summer’s special session, but Governor Abbott didn’t include it on his 19-point agenda.)
That the policies are unpopular and incite protest can be spun as a plus for the NRA in the post-Obama era. You won’t find anybody spontaneously marching in the streets in favor of gun confiscation or a broad ban on civilian gun sales. If the NRA wants to produce evidence of "anti-gun" activism, it needs to provoke it. Suggest guns in dormitories or guns in bars or a bill to allow domestic abusers to keep their guns, and of course somebody will show up wearing a sandwich board or swinging a dildo in protest.
Meanwhile, many new gun owners seem content (or compelled) to stand apart from the NRA and establish their own organizations. These include the National African American Gun Association; the Pink Pistols, an LGBT gun group; Trigger Happy Firearm Instruction, described by its founder as "a movement" for African American women; and the Black Women’s Defense League. Some of these growing groups (such as the Liberal Gun Club) have articulated specific policy positions, but most have very broad vision statements about inclusion or empowerment.
Faced with an evolving political climate, the NRA appears now to be doubling down on strategic antagonism. Casting about for a new enemy to replace Obama, the group recently turned its attention to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which it compares to al-Qaeda. While the NRA focuses on PETA, perhaps one of these emerging groups can take up issues more relevant to many gun owners.
Almost every gun owner will tell you that they prioritize safety. They’re usually talking about their own practices in the way they handle guns. And to their credit, most gun-related organizations I’ve encountered, including the NRA, offer information or training on the safe handling of firearms to prevent accidents. But what about consumer safety? The NRA has fought efforts to regulate gun and ammunition manufacturing, or to grant any federal agency the authority to mandate a safety recall for firearms. In some instances, gunmakershave known for years about defects in their products that have caused injuries and death, but have delayed issuing a recall. Nearly every other industry in the United States is subject to regulatory oversight for product safety, and the firearm industry should be no different. But when legislators express support for emerging technology that could make guns safer, the NRA labels them "anti-gun."
Another meaningful initiative that a membership organization for gun owners could pursue is suicide prevention. In 2014, I wrote about a small campaign organized by gun enthusiasts and suicide prevention experts in New Hampshire. Part of the idea was that gun owners should, as a matter of course, temporarily take firearms away from friends or relatives experiencing emotional distress (during a divorce or a job loss, for example). The idea is no more offensive than the notion of taking away a friend’s car keys when he’s had too much to drink. One has to wonder why the NRA, an organization that emphasizes safety, hasn’t embraced efforts like this one. The NRA has recently exhibited a little interest in suicide prevention, though it isn’t an issue they emphasize. When NRA spokespeople do address suicide, it’s usually to dismiss the demonstrable fact that easy access to guns is a risk factor.
A third useful role for a socially responsible gun club could be to work with government to help keep guns out of the wrong hands. It might sound preposterous today to suggest that a firearms enthusiast group might support strict recordkeeping on gun sales or a waiting period for purchases, or might help the government write legislation to restrict civilian access to battlefield weapons. But it has happened before, in the 1920s and ’30s. The group was called the National Rifle Association.
Matt Valentine has written about gun policy and gun violence for the Atlantic and Politico Magazine.